Notes from the Past

Western Express Notes

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 added the a vast western area to the United States.  The first visitors were the explorers such as Lewis and Clark and the "mountain men" who were fur traders and adventurers.  These trailblazers were followed by settlers bound for the free land and opportunity which they envisioned in the west.  Oregon was the goal of the immigrants who struggled across the nation on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s.  The 1850s brought the gold rushers to California.  By the 1860s other destinations began to fill the west.  Discovery of gold in Colorado in 1858 brought many there.

The westward expansion of the United States in the mid eighteenth century was hastened by the expansion of transportation.  The railroads pushed west with the first transcontinental route recorded as complete at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869.  Express and freight routes  were established to settled areas beyond the termini of the railroads until the railroads were completed.  The railroads and express companies were the daring and rewarding investments of the era.

Communication followed the immigrants.  The mail system also expanded.  Winning contracts for the carriage of mail was an important operating subsidy.  The railroads were automatically designated as post roads and generally received contracts for carrying the mail.  The express companies vied for contracts to destinations beyond the reach of railroads.  One of the principal western express companies was Wells Fargo.  The following paragraph is a brief description of their operations in the early 1867 from Omaha, Nebraska, to Denver, Colorado -- a route distance of 588 miles along the Platte river.  It is taken from Wells Fargo in Colorado Territory, W. Turrentine Jackson, published by the Colorado Historical Society in 1982.

Until the Union Pacific reached Julesburg in June 1867, heavy mail loads, disruption of railroad service along the route, and Indian attacks complicated Wells Fargo's service along the Platte Route.  In mid-February, Wells Fargo stagecoaches were delivering a substantial amount of mail -- twelve sacks on a single occasion for Denver and about twice that number for points further west.  Double stagecoaches were run on the Platte Route during the spring often bringing eighteen to twenty passengers into Denver at a time, along with newspapers and mail.  The Omaha newspapers were usually about a week old; those from Chicago over two weeks old.  "We may now expect regular communication," observed the editor of the [Rocky Mountain] News, "unless difficulty should be experienced in crossing the South Platte, or the Indians make a descent upon the road."
Posted May 18, 2000

Editor's Note:  With so much mail, it is a wonder that more did not survive.  The Platte River was sometimes described as a mile wide and a foot deep with water too thick to drink and too thin to plow.

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